I don’t know what the hell’s happened,’ the Cabinet insider said to me. ‘The whole thing’s imploded.’ It has. This week the Prime Minister’s Chequers strategy fell apart.
An attempt to bounce her Ministers into supporting a proposal that would have seen Northern Ireland effectively carved off from the rest of the UK was dumped in the face of a furious revolt.
A plan to extend the no deal ‘Backstop’ without a fixed end date was junked after the Chief Whip, Julian Smith, told Mrs May there was no way he could guide it through the Commons. And her last-ditch effort to cut a deal with the EU over extending the length of the transition period floundered after Mrs May was forced to publicly deny even floating the idea.
‘She thought she’d walk away from the summit with the deal done,’ one Minister explained. ‘But the opposite has happened. We’re all sitting here with no clear idea what it is that we’re even proposing.’
Up until now the problem for the Prime Minister has been a perception among her Ministers and backbenchers that she is pursuing a politically unworkable Brexit plan. But this morning a new view is forming. That she has no plan at all.
‘You know that moment when you’re out with your friends, and you’re having a half-decent time, and someone say’s “let’s try somewhere new”. So you all wander off and then after about 15 minutes one of you asks, “OK, where are we going?” and everyone just looks at everyone else, and you realise you’re all just standing there in the rain. That’s what it’s been like this week,’ says an official.
Cabinet confidence in May has collapsed. Across Government there was utter incredulity when it emerged a deal had been proposed that would have involved carving out a special status for Northern Ireland – something the Prime Minister has always said she would never entertain, and that her DUP partners have warned would imperil their support for her administration.
‘How did they think they would get that past anyone?’ one Minister asked in exasperation. ‘Dominic Raab [the Brexit Minister] had to get on the Eurostar to clear up the mess and tell Barnier to his face it was a non-starter.’
Two explanations are being floated. One is that negotiations have now been completely hijacked by Olly Robbins, the senior civil servant in charge of the day-to-day talks, and a mandarin regarded with hostility by Brexiteers who believe our man in Brussels is in reality Brussels’ man in Whitehall.
‘Robbins knew exactly what he was doing,’ said a Minister. ‘It was his plan, and he tried to force it through even though he knew it would be politically toxic.’
That Robbins was party to an attempt to effectively bounce the Cabinet into annexing Northern Ireland from the Union is not in dispute. But another member of the Cabinet thinks he is merely being scape-goated for the Prime Minister’s own loss of nerve.
‘They’re hanging Robbins out to dry. The problem is May. The Salzburg ambush has changed everything,’ he explained. ‘The EU now think she’s prepared to cave into just about whatever they want in order to get a deal through.’
Downing Street had a detailed post-Brexit game plan. But Brussels has steadfastly refused to follow it.
No10’s belief was that May would be able to separate the member states from EU negotiators, that the loss of two senior Cabinet Ministers (Boris Johnson and David Davis) over Chequers would demonstrate the PM had gone as far as she could in granting concessions, and that the European panjandrums would respond accordingly. They haven’t. No10 sources insist significant progress has been made on the details of the Chequers settlement.
But, according to Cabinet insiders, what progress has been made is simply because May is capitulating to the EU’s demands. ‘Before Salzburg the idea was we would meet the EU 50:50. But now it’s more like 70:30 or 80:20,’ said one.
Some Downing Street officials still cling to the hope of being thrown a threadbare EU lifeline. ‘We’re actually very close now,’ says one. But even one of May’s few remaining Cabinet allies believes this may be wishful thinking.
‘A lot of the backlash has come from Ministers who want to be in the Cabinet but like to pretend people will forget they’ve been in the Cabinet when we get to a leadership election.
‘But to be honest, even if she does get a deal now, where are the votes for it in the Commons? Is she really going to be able to get Chequers past with Labour votes?’ The consensus among both Tory Brexiteers and Remainers is that she can’t. And that, if anything, opposition to Chequers is now hardening. ‘There are going to be a series of conversations this weekend,’ one Tory grandee told me. ‘People are considering their options.’
None of them are especially palatable. Many backbenchers are hoping the Cabinet revolt can be leveraged into a full-scale challenge to May’s leadership.
Conversely, a number of members of the Cabinet – conscious of the old adage that he who wields the dagger never wears the crown – are now privately hoping the threshold of 48 signatures for a no-confidence vote may at last be reached.
What everyone is agreed on is that if a confidence vote were to be triggered, the events of the past days would make it hard for May to survive.
‘I think there’s a minimum of 100 MPs who wouldn’t back her now,’ says one backbencher, ‘and that’s probably being generous. If she loses that much support then there’s no way she can cling on.’
She has clung on before. But that was when it was perceived the PM’s doggedness and determination were the qualities necessary to find a route through the Brexit maze.
Now the sense is that – just like that group looking for a new restaurant – she is lost. Her Chequers strategy is in tatters and there is no fall back plan.
It’s cold. It’s raining. And Theresa May has nowhere to go.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.